2015 Reading Journey: The Lost World

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The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912) (bonus)

The second of the two bonus books I snuck into the schedule. I’m familiar with, if not extremely well-versed in, Mr. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories—and who isn’t at least familiar with the character?—but I’ve never read any of his science fiction. The Lost World is the first of the Professor Challenger stories, the first of three, according to Wikipedia.

Refreshingly, we have no framing story and we jump right to the narrator’s POV. But holy sexism, Batman! The opening chapter of the book is basically about how every woman wants a man who is so awesome his light shines on her and makes her the envy of all other women. And—spoiler alert—we go back to that sexism to close things out. When the narrator returns to claim his woman after his heroic exploits, he finds the fickle thing has all but forgotten him, claiming to have sent him a letter to explain, and has married a man with the exciting and heroic career of a legal clerk to suit her dreams.

But back to the story.

The basic premise is that somewhere deep in the Amazon, there’s an odd and unusually isolated area that has been cut off from the rest of the world since the time of the dinosaurs. Which, by the way, means there are still dinosaurs on this strange plateau. The narrator is a reporter who goes to see the man making this strange claim, who’s evidence is all secondary but convincing, at least in his mind. And his mind, Professor Challenger’s mind, is the only one that really matters. It starts out as a discussion, turns into a fist fight, and migrates back into a discussion.

This sidles into my biggest problem with the book, though I’m not entirely certain it’s actually a problem. I don’t I like Professor Challenger, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to. He’s kind of an arrogant dick. Especially if you remove the “kind of” from the previous sentence. He has moments, drawn down the rabbit hole of some bit of interesting science, when he’s almost human. But the rest of the time, Professor Challenger knows best and you can suffer if you disagree.

The book is written in the first person, the narrator being one Edward Malone writing a series of very long letters back to his editor. For me, this robs a little urgency from some of the events, but it’s not an overused device, or perhaps wasn’t at the time.

It takes a little while to get to the actual lost world. First, we have to have the academy of sciences agree that there needs to be an expedition. The narrator, accompanied by the adventurer Lord John Roxton and a somewhat less than impartial (one might say adversarial at times) Professor Summerlee set off on a transatlantic cruise to South America with sealed instructions. And Challenger himself sneaks along, but we don’t discover that just yet. The four of them, with assorted native guides and porters as well as their “devoted negro Zambo” (shudder at the phrasing, but it’s not at all unusual for the time period we’re reading in), set off up the Amazon. They travel by boat to a certain point, then over land, slowly leaving more of their porters behind or sending them back with letters.

Eventually, the party reaches the plateau, sights what might be a pterodactyl of some kind, finds a way to climb up and, because one of their porters is a man whose brother was killed by Roxton during his crusade to help end slavery in the region, winds up trapped there.

And the lost world exists. There are all kinds of strange creatures, including some iguanadon and pterodactyl the party identifies, plus both humans and a species of ape men, the missing link obviously. There are battles both before and after some of the party are captured, culminating in the near extermination of the ape men. The humans don’t want the little group to leave and take their amazing weapons with them, but Challenger and crew start looking for ways to escape and get off the plateau.

And we find that the plateau is perhaps not so isolated. The humans on the plateau live in caves, and since they had to get up there in the first place somehow, there must be a way down. And there is, a series of caves and tunnels that take them back down to the regular Amazon jungle and smack dab into Zambo and a rescue party. A resolution pulled out of thin air and not really earned by the story or the characters.

Back to England for a verification with the world of science, including a hatched pterodactyl which, naturally escapes. Lord John is planning to go back to the plateau and Malone, dumped by his girlfriend for a legal clerk, intends to go with him. The end.

That last paragraph may seem like an oversimplification. It is, but not by very much.

Of the four main characters, you can find something to like in each. Challenger may be a jerk, but he has no patience with falsehood, especially of the scientific variety. Roxton is the manliest of men, the cream of British adventurism, and is as adept at taking charge as he is at following orders when he has to. Summerlee starts off as a stereotype ivory tower weasel but once he has the evidence in hand, he’s a convert and ardent defender. Malone, goes on the adventure for the wrong reason—to impress a girl—but, even though he lacks a little common sense, steps up to do what he needs to do in order to see to the safety of his comrades.

Overall rating: 3 stars. It was a fine story, at least up until the end, which felt very contrived to me, just a way to wrap things up quickly. A classic pulp adventure tale that was worth the reading time but didn’t impress me enough to go out and find the other Challenger stories.

Be well, everyone.

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